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The city of Sylvania has become a hotbed of controversy over a ban on feeding feral cats, which has pitted city leaders against animal-welfare advocates, including well-known national organizations.
Sylvania is the first Toledo-area community to institute such a ban.
The new law signed into effect Tuesday prohibits residents from feeding stray cats and other wildlife, except for songbirds.
Violating the minor misdemeanor law has an escalating penalty, which begins with a $150 fine for the first offense and goes up to $250 for the second.
Law Director Leslie Brinning said the code is complaint-driven and the onus is on the complainant to prove a violation.
City leaders said they also will look into a long-term solution to reduce the stray cat population, including possible grant funding and an animal-welfare partner to implement a program to manage Sylvania’s feral cat colonies.
The method most widely used by organizations is a trap-neuter-return program. The program would humanely trap feral cats to be spayed or neutered and vaccinated.
Friendly adult cats and kittens can be put up for adoption, while the others are returned to their territories to discourage new strays from moving in.
“If there was a neighborhood that had a concern and if they wanted us to make an exception [to the code] to work together on [trap-neuter-return], we can consider that,” Council Chairman Mary Westphal said.
Four animal-advocacy organizations have offered Sylvania advice on the issue.
Humane Ohio, the Toledo Area Humane Society, an Ohio representative of the Humane Society of the United States, and national cat-advocacy group Alley Cat Allies all voiced opposition to the feeding ban.
Representatives of three of the groups met with city officials before council approved the ban Monday.
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Each group said feeding feral cats is crucial to a trap-neuter-return program. Aimee St. Arnaud, founder and director of Humane Ohio, explained feeding stations allow volunteer caretakers to monitor a cat colony’s health and population. Caretakers can then see if a new cat enters the colony or if kittens are born, and can take appropriate action to keep the population stable.
Elizabeth Holtz, staff attorney for Maryland-based Alley Cat Allies, which sent a letter to the city opposing a feeding ban, said cats are territorial and will not leave an area simply because people stop feeding them. Instead, they will find other sources such as garbage cans. They also will hunt birds, rabbits, squirrels, and other wildlife.
“We’ve seen feeding bans actually resulting in more nuisance complaints,” she said.
John Dinon, the Ohio director of outreach and engagement for Humane Society of the United States, agreed. The disappearance of a consistent food source might also cause cats to expand their territory.
The city made an attempt to control a neighborhood feral cat population in October. It allocated $1,500 for Humane Ohio to conduct a trap-neuter-return program in the Vicksburg Drive area.
The organization trapped and altered 18 cats. Four kittens were removed, and the remaining 14 cats were returned.
But residents there said the problem persisted because the cats are still being fed, with one resident in April showing the council a large grocery bag of what she said was cat feces from her yard.
Ms. St. Arnaud said the effort in the Vicksburg area wasn’t given enough time before disputes among neighbors escalated. She said residents hired a contractor to trap and remove a number of cats, essentially undoing Humane Ohio’s efforts by opening up the territory for other feral cats.
But just a few blocks south of Vicksburg Drive and just outside city limits in Sylvania Township, the Farmbrook Drive neighborhood has stabilized its population of feral cats through trap-neuter-return. Ms. St. Arnaud said residents there pooled resources to get 35 cats altered with Humane Ohio with an additional 18 kittens taken for adoption.
Natalie Hefner, a resident of the Farmbrook area, has worked with her neighbors since August, 2012, to manage the feral cat population.
On Tuesday she was setting up traps at a home in the neighborhood in an effort to capture three kittens discovered in the colony.
Ms. St. Arnaud said the mother cat is elusive and hasn’t been seen, but efforts will be made to trap her as well.
Ms. Hefner has attended Sylvania meetings since last fall, and advocated that city officials enact a rule making those who feed stray cats responsible for providing an appropriate place for them to defecate.
Humane Ohio also has offered to help city residents make their yards less attractive to cats through a number of inexpensive and humane measures that would deter them from using an area as a litter box.
“Whether people love them, hate them, or are indifferent, we all have the same goal of reducing the cat population,” Ms. St. Arnaud said. “Humane Ohio is happy to help the city, but we want to help them do something that will have long-term success.”